Stephen Wilhite led an animated life.
OK, his is not a name that leaps to mind like Maya Angelou, Steve Jobs or (heaven help us) Justin Bieber. But if you’ve been online at all, you touched his work. Wilhite, who died recently at 74, invented the GIF, the moving photos that turned social media into a special effect out of Harry Potter.
He also, years after their invention, triggered one of the internet’s most long-running minor debates with just five words:
“It’s pronounced ‘jif,’ not ‘gif.’”
Yes, like the peanut butter. That had actually been part of the documentation for the Graphics Interchange Format since day one … which of course most people never saw. And in a jiffy (or even a giffy), we reconfirmed two essential truths of our species.
First, that people will argue about absolutely ANYTHING, and the flames only get hotter as the stakes get lower. Online battles over the “proper” pronunciation of GIF still rage back and forth with the intensity of a Star Wars movie, joining such timeless classics as “that stupid call in the Super Bowl” and “who needs the Oxford comma, anyway?”
After a while, the exchange gets pretty predictable:
“Well, the G stands for ‘Graphic,’ so of course it’s a hard G!”
“The U in SCUBA stands for ‘Underwater,’ are you going to start saying scuh-ba?”
“It’s like ‘gap’ or ‘get!’”
“No, it’s like ‘genius’ or ‘giraffe.’”
“Jif sounds stupid!”
“You sound stupid!”
Verily, this is a philosophical discourse that Socrates himself would envy.
The second essential truth is more subtle. Namely, that the meaning of an idea doesn’t start and stop with its creator.
Any literature fans reading this will recognize this immediately as “the death of the author,” Stripped of PhD language (you’re welcome), this basically says that the author isn’t the only one who gets to decide what a story’s about. Just as an invention can be created for one purpose and used for another, a story can change when it reaches the reader’s hands. Yes, the author has intents and purposes, but the reader brings their own experience to the tale, which may lead them to discover something quite different.
It’s a little scary and a little exciting. It means that reading a story or watching a movie isn’t just a matter of cracking a code (“what did they mean by that?”) but a process of adventure and discovery (“what will I find here?”) J.R.R. Tolkien called it the difference between allegory – a strict this-means-that definition by the writer – and applicability.
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence,” he wrote. “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
It means that while stories shape us, we can also shape them right back. It means that we don’t just have to accept ideas in couch-potato fashion. We can grapple with them, challenge them and take them in new directions. All sorts of concepts can be transformed this way, from fiction to ideologies to language itself.
So if 20 years down the road, the “hard G” folks win the GIF battle for good (or even for jood), it’s not an error or a crime. It just means the story wasn’t over.
It’s your tale. Choose as you will.
Just be gentle – or gracious – to those on the other side.